The House That Dick Built: The 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers Starting Defense

TJ JenkinsAnalyst IMay 25, 2009

The National Football League is a league of parity; things are constantly changing. Though the faces and names change for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, one thing remains unwaveringly constant: the ferocity and tenacity of each player that sees the playing field.

This is largely attributed to defensive mastermind Dick LeBeau, a two-time Super Bowl champion defensive coordinator with the Steelers.

Let's take a look at the kingdom of defensive talent that he has surrounded himself with, a look at the house that Dick built.


The Defensive Line

Casey Hampton, Nose Tackle.

Casey Hampton epitomizes what a nose tackle should be: big, mean, and powerful. He easily commands a double-team every play that he's on the field.

He stepped in as a rookie and emerged as a solid two-gap defensive tackle after being a first-round selection out of Texas in the 2001 NFL Draft.

He only has four and a half sacks in his career but in the 3-4 defense the defensive linemen aren’t playing for stats, their main focus is to tie up the offensive linemen and allow the linebackers to roam the field to make plays.

Hampton does his job, and he does his job very well. The only knock on him is that he has a tendency to show up at training camp well over his designated weight.

Head Coach Mike Tomlin was not pleased with this in 2008 and sent Hampton to work with strength and conditioning coach Garrett Giemont on a field adjacent to the Steelers practice field to work that weight off.

Hampton is entering the final year on his contract and will turn 32 years old on Sept. 3.

Aaron Smith, Defensive End

Smith was selected in the fourth round of the 1999 NFL Draft out of the University of Northern Colorado, where he holds the school record for sacks with 44.

He is an ideal defensive end in a 3-4 defensive scheme-big and strong as an ox. He’s currently ranked ninth all time on the Pittsburgh Steelers sack leaders with 42 in his career.

Smith has proven time and again that he is not only a great football player, but an exemplary human being as well, taking it all in stride when his son Elijah was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

He plays with the heart and tenacity that embodies the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Brett Keisel, Defensive End

Keisel started his football career as a linebacker and tight end in a Wyoming high school, where he lettered four times and was voted the Wyoming Player Of the Year in his senior season.

He was a seventh-round draft pick in 2002, out of Brigham Young University (BYU) and appeared in five games his rookie year.

Once Kimo von Oelhoffen took the money from the New York Jets and departed the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006, Keisel signed a new contract with the team and became a starter at the defensive end position.

Keisel, like most 3-4 defensive ends isn’t going to go out on gameday and give your team 3 sacks. What he IS going to do is tie up an offensive tackle and allow the linebackers behind him to get those sacks, as James Harrison how helpful that is.


James Harrison, Outside Linebacker

As we all know, James Harrison had a breakout 2008 season with the Steelers, amassing 16 sacks. Prior to that in his 2007 campaign he played very well, earning the nickname “Mr. Monday Night.”

After he went undrafted in 2002 out of Kent State in Ohio, he spent time with both the Pittsburgh Steelers and AFC North rivals the Baltimore Ravens.

He spent time on the Steelers practice squad and also had a brief stint playing for the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe before being cut by the Ravens.

He started for the first time in his career in 2004, against the Cleveland Browns due to Pro Bowler Joey Porter being ejected prior to the game for fighting with Browns running back William Green.

Harrison and fellow outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley amassed a total of 27 and a half sacks on the year.

He also became the first undrafted player to ever win the NFL Defensive Player Of the Year Award, after beating out Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware for the award.

In Super Bowl XLIII, Harrison set a Super Bowl record by intercepting a Kurt Warner pass at the goal line and taking it back the entire length of the field for a 100 yard return; the longest in Super Bowl history. The Steelers would go on to win the game.

Along with the nickname of “Mr. Monday Night,” he’s also known as “Silverback” and “Deebo” to teammates.

LaMarr Woodley, Outside Linebacker

Yet another beneficiary of the Steelers dominant defensive line, Woodley combined with fellow outside linebacker James Harrison to rack up 27.5 sacks as a duo.

In his first career start he recorded three tackles, one sack, one pass defense, one interception, and a fumble recovery. Subsequently, he was named the GMC Defensive Player of the Week. He didn’t slow down over the course of the 2008 season either.

He currently holds an NFL record, as he is the only player to record four multi-sack playoff games in a streak that dates back to a crushing 31-29 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2008 playoffs.

Woodley effectively ended Super Bowl XLIII by sacking Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner for the second time in the game and forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Steelers.

James Farrior, Middle Linebacker

James Farrior was the definition of an athlete in high school, lettering three times in three sports: football, track, and wrestling.

During his senior year of football he played both fullback and linebacker. Over the course of that season his stat line looked like this:

78 tackles

11 sacks

5 blocked kicks

2 interceptions

4 forced fumbles

105 carries

1,006 yards (9.6 average)

22 rushing touchdowns

19 receptions

340 yards (17.9 average)

4 receiving touchdowns.

That’s simply amazing. He was an absolute force on both sides of the ball.

Farrior was chosen by the New York Jets in the 1997 NFL draft as the eight overall player selected.

In 2002 he signed a contract with the Steelers and has been a staple of the Steelers defense ever since. After a great 2004 campaign, he finished second behind Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed in the Defensive Player of the Year Award voting.

Come the 2008 season, he expressed his wish to finish his career as a part of the storied Steelers franchise and his wish was granted as he signed a five-year contract with the organization.

Lawrence Timmons, Middle Linebacker

With the departure of middle linebacker Larry Foote, Timmons is slated to be the 2009 starter opposite of James Farrior in the middle of the Steelers tenacious defense.

He got a considerable amount of playing time in 2008 and certainly made the most of it. He finished the season with 65 tackles, five sacks, and one interception.

Timmons will be an immediate upgrade over Foote due to his speed and athleticism. This will give the Steelers a three-headed monster in the pass rushing department.



Ike Taylor, Cornerback

Finding statistics that accurately reflect a cornerback’s play is a very grueling and time-consuming process.

That being said, here are some quick stats about Ike Taylor when he’s covering the opposing team’s number one wide receiver.

Why just the No. 1 receiving target? Simply because Ike Taylor was the Steelers No. 1 cornerback and was called upon to defend the opponents top wideout.

Offenses went to their primary target 9.1 times a game against Ike Taylor and achieved an average of only 59.5 yards per game.

William Gay, Cornerback

The second cornerback position in 2009 will be up for grabs in a battle between the young gun Gay and the savvy veteran Deshea Townsend. The majority of fans believe that Gay will emerge victorious.

After former starter Bryant McFadden went down with an injury, Gay started four games, though he played in all 16 last year.

He finished the season with 41 tackles (33 of them solo), seven passes defended, and one interception.

He would add an element of speed that Townsend could not bring to the table. Either way, Gay will see the field throughout the season for the 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Ryan Clark, Free Safety

Yet another undrafted player starting for the Super Bowl champions, Clark has been a member of both the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins.

In 2006, after Chris Hope departed for the Tennessee Titans, the Steelers signed Clark to take over the starting free safety position.

In 2007 he had to have his spleen and gall bladder removed, losing 30 pounds during the process. He returned from that to play a pivotal part in the Super Bowl XLIII run.

The highlight of Ryan Clark’s 2008 season in the eyes of most fans is more than likely his clobbering of Wes Welker in a 33-10 trouncing of the New England Patriots in week 13.


Troy Polamalu, Strong Safety

The Steelers first round draft pick in 2003 out of the University Of Southern California was actually the team’s second choice; they had originally planned on signing the previous years Super Bowl MVP, Dexter Jackson.

He owns a very clear distinction as the only safety to be drafted by Pittsburgh in the first round of the draft.

Troy Polamalu, to put it quite simply is an animal. An all around player who can do anything asked of him on the defensive side of the ball. He has the perfect blend of speed, anticipation, technique, intelligence, and heart.

Injuries have plagued him up until the start of the 2008 season, which was his first full season since 2005.

Polamalu clinched the AFC Championship game against the Ravens by returning an interception for a touchdown, effectively sending his team to the Super Bowl to face the NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals.

His impact in Super Bowl XLIII wasn’t a statistical one (two tackles, one pass defense) but it was truly felt by the Cardinals wide receivers. Polamalu helped keep star receiver Larry Fitzgerald ineffective until the second half of the game.

He’s been named to the Pro Bowl every year since the 2004 game. He also has every intention of remaining a Steelers player for the entirety of his career.

The starting lineup for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2009 season will be a formidable one, with each and every player being immersed in the style of play and the playbook. They know what they’re doing and do it well.


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